Punjab Assembly poll | We will be fighting on performance, says former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar

He opines party has to to do well in the upcoming Assembly elections in five States

With the 2022 Punjab Assembly election a few months away, the ruling Congress, which has been facing turmoil within its State unit amid power tussles among senior leaders, is staring at the stiff task of retaining power.

As the party prepares to press into intense electioneering mode, former Punjab Congress Committee president Sunil Jakhar in an exclusive interview says that before getting into any kind of electoral battle, an assurance that “all sections of society are equal” needs to be extended by the Congress to a section of Punjab’s community, which is at present anxious amid certain senior Congress leaders’ utterances that only a Sikh must be the Chief Minister of the State. He says the conduct and utterances of certain leaders have created a bogey of ‘religious identity’ in Punjab, which is neither the Congress’s ethos nor the ethos of ‘Punjabiyat’.

Excerpts:

The Congress high command has given you charge of the 2022 poll campaign committee. How you do intend to steer the campaign?

The campaign could be built around either a personality or the ideology or performance or vision. We have the performance and the vision. And as far as the personality or leadership is concerned, the party ‘high command’ has already clarified that they intend to go with a ‘collective leadership’ this time.

The party’s in-charge for Punjab affairs Harish Chowdhary had made it clear that this election is not going to be built around ‘one particular person’. The last campaign [2017] was around Captain Amarinder Singh, but it won’t be on that line this time. It’s going to be a joint Congress. We will be fighting on our performance; a lot of development has been achieved in the State.

What, according to you, are the key hurdles for the Congress in the upcoming poll?

I think there is something that needs to be acknowledged before we get into any kind of electoral battle. It’s very important for the Congress party to realise that the road to power to the Centre goes through Punjab. The Congress has to do well in the upcoming Assembly elections in five States, and it has a good chance in Punjab. To be successful, we need to identify our strengths and roadblocks.

Our strength is what Rahul Gandhiji believes in, and that is ‘breaking conventional norms.’ He has a vision and that is what he tried in Punjab — he broke a glass ceiling when he brought in Charanjit Singh Channi as the Chief Minister, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste community. The decision was a step towards social empowerment of the deprived section of society. But while he was breaking a glass ceiling, certain senior party leaders at the central level in Delhi through their uncalled for ‘utterances’ and some leaders in Punjab through their ‘conduct’ have worked to put a toughened kind of glass ceiling on Mr. Gandhi’s good work.

Certain party leaders, when the decision of replacing the Chief Minister was being deliberated on, publicly stated that ‘a Sikh should be the Chief Minister of Punjab,’ and passed on an impression that other sections of society are disqualified for the top post. This perception has to be nipped in the bud because Punjabis don’t feel that way. I have never been made to feel like a second-class citizen. I’m a proud Punjabi… more than anything else, I’m a proud Indian. And every Punjabi is a first-class citizen. It was out of their own insecurities, petty vision, that these leaders have created a bogey of ‘religious identity’ in Punjab, which is neither the Congress party’s ethos nor, definitely, the ethos of ‘Punjabiyat’.

And now they have ended up making an entire community of Punjab society anxious. I keep hearing these days from people of that particular section of the community, ‘Are we second-class citizens?’ I cannot speak for any section of community, society, or for a particular class, because I have always considered myself a ‘Punjabi’. May be, I can tell them numerous times, ‘No, I’m not a second-class citizen.’

But I think the ‘anxious community’ needs to be assured by the party about the Congress’s ideology. We have to reinforce that in Punjab every Punjabi is a first-class citizen. We need to acknowledge the fact that out of their selfish interest, their lust for power or their insecurities, certain Congress leaders have done massive damage to the social fabric along with the electoral prospects of the Congress. The ‘identity anxiousness’ among any section of the community was never an issue in Punjab, but an own goal has been scored by some of our leaders. We need to rectify it. I am sure we will address the issue and convey to everyone that the Congress is the only party that stands for all. Other parties either represent a religion, caste, or a section of society or region but the Congress is the only party that talks about and works for everyone, it talks about all regions, all the classes, the entire country, in fact. The reassurance needs to be given to a section of society that all are equal.

Do you think that you were denied the chance of becoming Punjab Chief Minister for being a non-Sikh?

With certain veteran Congress leaders saying that only a Sikh can be the Chief Minister of Punjab and if a Sikh cannot become a Chief Minister of Punjab, where would the Sikh be, it has made it difficult for the Congress to defend this thing. If tomorrow, a reverse reference is made that only a Hindu can be Prime Minister in India, then how would the Congress party defend it? It was totally uncalled for to make such a comment, which could embarrass the party, and it is totally against the ethos of the Congress. The remark may have been made in a personal capacity but it has sent a very wrong message. This issue needs to be addressed immediately and the Congress will have to disown it.

Do you think anti-incumbency is a factor and that it will impact the Congress’s electoral prospects?

Definitely, there is an anti-incumbency factor, but at the same time, the people’s experience in the Congress regime is far better and pleasant than what people had in the 10-year rule of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party. As for the Aam Aadmi Party, though, by asking for ‘one chance,’ they are trying to hoodwink the people into believing that this is going to be their first chance, which is not true. People have already given them two chances — the first was four MPs, which were returned in 2014 and then in the 2017 Assembly poll they got 20 MLAs. But the way they have handled people, their own people have deserted them, which speaks a lot about what they are. On relative terms, the Congress fares much better. Of course, there are some issues, which cannot be denied, like nabbing ‘big fishes’ in the drug trade or the sacrilege issue. But otherwise, a lot has been done in the last four years.

By replacing its Chief Minister in Punjab, has the Congress accepted that the government failed to deliver on its promises?

I’ve been very closely associated with Captain Amarinder Singh and I can say that somewhere along the line, he missed the elephants in the room — one was the sacrilege issue and the other was the drugs menace. I think he did not pay attention to these two issues. What led to his replacement from the post was not an acceptance that the government has failed. The government has done well.

One of our major poll promises was the enhancement of old-age pension, which we did by rising it from ₹700 to ₹1500. Within our resources, the loan waiver for farmers was done. Of course, it is not what people expected. But obviously, the government was stretched on the financial front. And all these ‘rail blockades’ and ‘dharnas’ [during farmers’ protest] didn’t help, besides the attitude of the Central government in withholding our GST payments, coronavirus issues, etc were constraints, but still, a genuine effort was made and more than ₹5,000 crore has been disbursed and these things cannot be denied, these are facts.

Do you think the continuous rant against their own government by senior party leaders on public platforms in Punjab amounts to indiscipline? Also, the names of a few party candidates have been endorsed during public rallies. How do you react?

Yes, I personally think that this should be should be checked. I think too much leeway has been given and it’s not about any particular person. Such issues deserve more attention and they should have been handled sternly rather than glancing over… it has led to a kind of a free-for-all situation, which is not good for the party. A divided house never helps anybody. Whatever differences are there should be sorted out in-house.

If firm action is required, it should be taken over discipline. No laxity can be given now, it should be tackled in one way or the other. If a hard decision has to be taken, it should be taken. For announcing the names of candidates, the party has established a process, which cannot be circumvented.

The position of State Congress president is as high as you get in a State. And this authority that is vested in that position also makes it incumbent upon you to be careful about the process and procedures to be followed. The ‘high command’ should settle this issue once and for all. Whether it is the Chief Minister [Charanjit Singh Channi] distributing grants without consulting the party, choosing people of their own choice, or whether it is the PCC president [Navjot Singh Sidhu]. I think it is incumbent upon them that they follow the process and it should be done in close coordination with the party, and the government at this juncture should be working in coordination.

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